The clock’s ticking on this hapless Corbynista puppet’s leadership

IT was Churchill who allegedly joked that ‘an empty car drew up and Clement Attlee got out of it’.

He was also said to have branded the former Labour Prime Minister ‘that sheep in sheep’s clothing’.

Richard Leonard, it’s fair to say, is no Clement Attlee, and yet he occupies the same metaphorically empty car (and is perhaps a little less fierce than a sheep).

You might dimly recall Alex Rowley, the caretaker Scottish Labour boss after Kezia Dugdale stepped down, before her ill-advised foray into the jungle.

Mr Rowley’s short tenure as interim leader ended in acrimony following an investigation into claims by a former partner of stalking and harassment.

During nearly three months in charge, Mr Rowley was an almost cadaverous presence in the Holyrood debating chamber.

His monotonous delivery was soul-sapping for anyone unlucky enough to hear it, and he had all the charisma of, well, Mr Leonard.

So it wasn’t exactly a hard act to follow – and yet Mr Leonard’s first few months have been decidedly uninspiring.

Mr Leonard may be marginally more exciting to listen to the than Mr Rowley (faint praise, indeed), but his hectoring, shouty style owes much to his background as a trade union activist.

Oratorical flourish has been distinctly lacking, as was evidenced last Thursday when Mr Leonard quizzed Nicola Sturgeon about her childcare strategy, which is – like most SNP policies – heading for the rocks.

He demanded answers, then dismissed her detailed response as an ‘avalanche of statistics’, earning hoots of derision from the SNP benches, and silent exasperation from his own side.

Labour created the Scottish parliament and yet Mr Leonard is the party’s eighth full-time leader since 1999, and the fifth since Jack McConnell was ousted from Bute House by Alex Salmond in 2007.

That chain of evolution from Donald Dewar, the first First Minister, to Mr Leonard, has been a downward spiral, driving the party into an intellectual void – and an electoral cul-de-sac.

More than anything, Labour has to confront an existential question: in an age when it risks being condemned to irrelevance, what is it for, and what does it seek to achieve?

It has already ceded the key job of holding the SNP to account to the Tories, and Mr Leonard has fluffed the first challenge of his tenure – to convince his critics that he knows what he’s doing.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard

He threatened to suspend Miss Dugdale after she fled to the jungle to promote ‘Labour values’ by pocketing £70,000 and giving only 7 per cent of it to charity (so much for the redistribution of wealth…)

But in the end she was let off with a formal warning for her unauthorised Antipodean jaunt, proving that, whatever you thought of her decision, the new leader’s initial tough talk was entirely without foundation.

A majority of the parliamentary party and Labour elder statesmen backed Mr Leonard’s leadership rival Anas Sarwar.

Earlier this month, Mr Sarwar refused to sit next to Mr Leonard at First Minister’s Questions because he felt the gesture was ‘tokenistic’.

This followed a row over Labour MP Hugh Gaffney, who apologised for using racist and homophobic language at a dinner.

Cementing his soft touch reputation, Mr Leonard had refused to take further action against Mr Gaffney despite his admission he had made ‘deeply offensive’ remarks, instead sending him for diversity training.

There is something of the playground about this spat, but it underlines how dysfunctional the party has become, and the discord that remain at the highest levels as it struggles to draw a line under years or internal turmoil.

One Holyrood insider told me ‘splits are everywhere’, adding: ‘Richard Leonard’s allies are keeping their heads down and not doing much. His rivals are privately furious about the way he’s going about the job but are playing the long game.

‘They realise it wouldn’t look good to try to oust him so soon after the leadership contest.’

Mr Leonard is also far from decisive, taking over a month to appoint a shadow cabinet and longer to hand out junior roles, fuelling the impression of a man for whom even the most rudimentary of tasks proves almost overwhelming.

The central requirements of any opposition party are efficiency and ruthlessness, and relentlessly highlighting the flaws of the governing party.

With the current administration, the barrel is brimful with fish – all of which remain resolutely unshot by Mr Leonard.

On the economy, it seems Mr Leonard want to tax us all until the pips squeak even louder than they will under the SNP’s plans.

The 46p rate planned by the SNP on earnings over £150,000 would instead apply to income above £60,000.

But Mr Leonard also wants a local tourist tax and a land value tax on more than 10,000 hectares of economically inactive land, to be collected by councils.

As ever, there is no problem for which a tax raid isn’t the answer.

Many of Mr Leonard’s policies have been rehashed from Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto last year, or cannibalised from Scottish Labour manifestos for the last two elections.

Pilfering ideas is a time-honoured political tactic, but generally it’s the good ones that are stolen – not the ones that led to disaster at the polls.

On Brexit – next to independence the defining constitutional question of our times – Mr Leonard has dithered, mirroring the muddled approaching of his political master Mr Corbyn.

Mr Leonard’s strategy, if it can be given such a grand name, has been based on supporting access to the single market and customs union.

But he is reluctant to be seen as overtly pro-Remain, and appointed Eurosceptic Neil Findlay as Brexit spokesman.

The plan has angered many moderates in Labour, and 10 local constituency branches are proposing pro-EU motions at the forthcoming Scottish Labour conference, starting on March 9.

Mr Leonard’s authority is likely to face another challenge at that gathering in Dundee, just four months after he became leader.

Yesterday a Labour spokesman said Mr Leonard ‘wants a deal that is a good deal for the people of Scotland’, but precisely what that deal would be remains more than a little opaque.

There is little doubt that Mr Leonard will toe Mr Corbyn’s line in the weeks to come, giving the SNP ample ammunition to deride Scottish Labour as merely a ‘branch office’ – an unconvincing facsimile of the London party.

But if Mr Leonard is a puppet, Mr Corbyn is not alone in pulling the strings.

The real power in the Scottish Labour movement is Unite, the union which spent £30,000 trying to get Mr Leonard elected – compared to just £20,000 for the entire 2016 Holyrood election campaign.

For now, Mr Leonard has union backing, but Scottish Labour at full throttle can make The Sopranos look like The Archers.

If Mr Leonard cannot come up with a reason why he should continue to lead the party, he can be sure the full might of its machine will turn against him – setting the leadership merry-go-round in motion once again.

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Graham Grant.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Columns on MailPlus https://www.mailplus.co.uk/authors/graham-grant